The myth of “color blindness”

Tales from the Front Lines

I can tell you the exact moment I realized my behavior was racially biased.

I grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago. I had some friends of color but, for the most part I was surrounded almost exclusively by white culture. “Politically correct” became the huge buzzword when I was a teenager.

At this time, there was a push to be more inclusive of different cultures and races in the classroom. This mostly involved incorporating some ethnic sounding names into text books and worksheets. It was nothing of substance of course, but a [weak] effort was made.

The capstone, of course, was the yearly, generally well-meaning lesson on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., every January. It always focused on the same phrase, “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

It’s impossible to argue against that ideal. Color and race is a construct created by humans based on nothing more than melanin levels in the skin and pretty much nothing else. It seemed logical.

The takeaway was, I should treat all people the same. Therefore, I will ignore race. Seemed pretty simple.

It was in college I realized why this was a horrible mistake.

In college, the three people I roomed with and I were a virtual melting pot. Chris was black and grew up in the near western suburbs of Chicago. Adam was a Muslim born in Egypt who became a U.S. citizen shortly before graduating high school. Jason, was white and grew up in fairly extreme poverty. He made it through college and grad school on academic scholarships and federal grants.

There was one rule that we promised to live by. If we had a problem with someone in the apartment, we promised to get it out in the open, process it and move on.  In more contemporary terms, if we were upset, we agreed “to keep it hundred,” or to be true to ourselves.

While the directness and open communication would at times freak out some of our friends and neighbors, it was a great way to make sure nothing festered and interfered with our friendship and living conditions. It also was the catalyst to one of the more valuable lessons I’ve ever learned.

There was one issue which we found difficult to be honest on, however.

We tended to be a tremendously social bunch and consequently would have many groups of people over.  After a few weeks, we noticed that Chris was starting to be more and more absent from our gatherings. Concerned that something was wrong, we asked if he was upset about something.

He shrugged it off as he just didn’t feel comfortable. After reminding him about our agreement to get everything out in the open, he explained that he didn’t feel comfortable being the only black person in the room. We told him he was being silly and that everyone loved him.

We chalked it up to him being dramatic and figured he’d come around. However, that’s not how it played out.

Chris became even more removed from social situations and it started gnawing at me. He completely skipped our Halloween festivities for the year and we were kind of irritated. The week after this I decided it was time to “keep it hundred.”

I brought the topic up again. He reiterated that he just felt very uncomfortable around white people and expressed that, through no fault of our own, he regretted moving in with us. I was crushed.

He went on to explain it wasn’t because of us per say, he just would never be comfortable hanging around with the largely white groups we tended to socialize with. I quickly dismissed that as nonsense, but Chris remained persistent.

Getting increasingly frustrated, I decided that I needed to give him a chance to prove it to me. I said, “If you are going to make claims like this, then I need you to show me. I need examples. I literally want you to say, ‘Time out’ when something happens that makes you uncomfortable and I want you to talk me through it. Show me because right now I think you’re being ridiculous.”

At first he was quite reticent to proceed. I get it. Race tends to be a taboo subject and can lead to some very ugly and heated exchanges. He asked me to promise not to get mad when he does it, I agreed that I’d try, but couldn’t promise. I’m glad I said this.

I did get defensive. I did get angry. It shook me. It also changed me for the better forever.

We had a few things happen in the first week, or so, which didn’t really resonate with me. As is the case with many when confronted with racial bias, I was primed to openly and enthusiastically guffaw at all the claims. After all, in my mind I thought I didn’t see people in terms of color. How could I be biased?

Then came the moment.

We were having a group of about 12 people over on a Friday night when Chris had to work until 10 p.m.  They had never met Chris and had no idea who we lived with. So Chris then explained to us that there was no way he was hanging out with these people he didn’t know. His plan was to come home from work, change clothes, and get out.

After a lot of what teetered perilously on the line between a discussion and an argument, he agreed to explain what his problem was.

He gave us a simple task. As soon as he walked in the door, he wanted us to watch the eyes and body language of everyone in the room. He explained to us that every time he comes in to a room and no one is expecting someone of color to be walking in, everyone will immediately default to protecting their stuff. They’ll sit up a bit straighter. Their eyes will quickly scan to see where their purse or personal belongings are. They’ll reach back, subtly, to check their wallet is still there. They’ll slide their phone close to them or put it away.

I openly laughed at him about this. I promised him that we would do it, and emphatically stressed that he needed to lighten up a bit. He promised us he would lighten up if he was wrong.

When Friday night arrived, we did what we promised, we watched. What we saw was sobering. It was subtle, it was over in an instant, but it happened. Chris was right.

I thought I was going to be sick. Everything that Chris was complaining about finally hit home. While it might have seemed trite, it wasn’t. I realized that there was a different set of rules he had to operate under.

The next morning, we didn’t waste any time to talk with Chris about what we saw. We were all severely rattled. He summed it up perfectly and I’ll never forget his words.

“It happens to us all the time. It cuts right through me every time.”

It was then he took me on a journey I will never forget. I had the opportunity to have someone talk me through what it’s like to be black in America. It was through this that I learned that even though Chris and I came from similar backgrounds, we had drastically different experiences, drastically different expectations and completely different rules.

Chris took the time to teach me and it helped me understand that not seeing someone’s color is unfair to everyone. We might live in the same country, but we don’t live in the same world.

I had classes with him. I saw professors monitor him more closely than others during tests. I saw people make uncomfortable jokes and then give the, “Oh lighten up, I’m just kidding.”

I saw people force Chris to become a spokesperson for his race every time someone of color did something wrong. That one really aggravated him. I remember him routinely pointing out, “Why is it that every time some white guy gets arrested on the news, everyone isn’t asking to explain why white people do that?”

Even though criticizing police is a highly toxic topic right now and has swung between legitimate criticism and unfair hyperbole, I can speak to my experience with him in this area.

I lived with Chris for 19 months. During that time, I had nine or 10 interactions with the police (throughout my college town and in various suburbs) during the time I was living with him. A lot of those interactions were traffic stops with him driving; though several were while we were just walking. A ticket was never issued in any case.

Since I have been old enough to drive, there were 319 months I did not live with Chris. In that time, I have had a total of five interactions with police. All of them were warranted, as I was driving a tad more briskly than I should have.

If I had continued being stopped by police at the same rate during the time I was NOT living with Chris as I was during the time I WAS living with Chris, I would have about 177 interactions with law enforcement at this point in my life. But, I’ve only had five. I have trouble believing that’s a coincidence.

There were all kinds of lessons from Chris that I was lucky enough to experience almost daily. It’s all out there for us to see, and it’s easy to ignore. It was him taking the time to tell me the impact it had on him that made the difference.

The biggest lesson is a simple one: Going through life color blind isn’t fair to people of color. Skin color has a drastic impact on your experience in America.

Chris had drastically different standards to live up to than I did. In taking race out of the equation, I assumed Chris and I were on a level playing field. Chris may have grown up in a community similar to mine. We had similar education paths. We may have had similar interests. We didn’t have similar experiences.

This is why, as educators, we need to look at how we address our students of color. It’s unacceptable to say, “I don’t see race, all my kids are the same,” when our students don’t have the same experiences. We need to look at how we relate and interact with our students and respect that the fact that, even though it shouldn’t, race matters in America.

Recently, NPR broadcast a report on a powerful study Yale did on preschool teachers.

By tracking eye movement, researchers showed that preschool teachers were far more likely to monitor black students than students of other races. Black male students were even more disproportionately targeted by the teachers. Teachers were also far more likely to identify these students as problem starters than peers of different races.

Here’s the thing: The kids were actors. The behavior of the different students was the same and not disruptive.

The study results resonated with me because it was about eyes. It was the eyes in my living room that November night that made me understand. Bias is real.  And it is a tremendous problem.

A more encouraging outcome from the study was that, while all teachers were given the opportunity to have their data removed from the study because the study was intentionally deceitful, 134 of the 135 teachers agreed to keep their data in the results. They were willing to reveal their own shortcomings for the greater good. That makes me feel better about our profession.

One quote resonated with me though: “It’s something probably we didn’t want to hear, but we needed to know.”

There’s plenty of additional mortifying evidence of racial bias in our schools.  That’s not even taking into account the achievement gap that has had little positive change in decades.

The bottom line is that it’s contingent upon all of us to be willing to address this head-on.

Acknowledging we all have biases doesn’t make us bad people. It makes us human. It’s time, though, to stop using the fear of stepping on some toes as an excuse to avoid difficult conversations.

In short, it’s time to look deeply at our practices, our beliefs and our behaviors.

Every one of us got into teaching because we wanted to be part of the single most rewarding profession in the world. However, to truly make a difference, we need to acknowledge race has an impact on our students’ lives.

That’s why I have vowed to confront bias and racism when I see it. I also have learned to acknowledge that my behavior can be racially biased. I’m not proud of that. It doesn’t mean I can’t improve on this though and continue to evolve and grow.

We know that there is no silver bullet right now, but if someone is going to find it, it’s teachers.

We need to view this as an opportunity better serve our students. I do. I want to work to be a teacher that addressed the needs of all students. That means that I need to embrace my own shortcomings.

There’s nothing wrong with admitting we have bias. It’s human nature. However, we need to be able to get it out into the open and “hundred.” It’s more important than ever that we be willing to openly discuss it without verbal bombs being dropped and insults being hurled at one another.

Change will only happen through open discourse. That’s what made me realize what I need to do. We all need have to have it. This is a topic that has an ugly history and has traditionally opened massive wounds whenever brought up. It’s also about as charged as it’s ever been in my lifetime.

We need to get past the anger and the traditional pitfalls that stop us from discussing the impact of race and get moving on real conversations that will help us more forward as a nation. I want to continue to be a better educator. I want to better serve kids and my members. I want this country to change.

Educators need to do be the one that initiate this change.

It’s for our kids and something that will only make us stronger.

I would love to see your comments in the section below. You can also follow me on Twitter by following @paulgamboa. Thanks for reading.

Paul Gamboa is a teacher leader in Indian Prairie School District 204 and an IEA member.